How my mother’s rules for parenting can be found in Dog Whisperer

For a comprehensive guide to bringing up children, just watch César Millán’s tips for rehabilitating dogs.

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It probably started when I was 16. Not entirely interested in spending copious amount of time drinking in a park or smoking weed in someone’s basement, many of my evenings and weekends as a teenager in suburban Ohio were increasingly spent at home watching period dramas, travel documentaries, and reality shows with my mom.

What quickly became one of our favourites, among House Hunters International, Downton Abbey (we’re American, let us live), and Chopped, was bizarrely Dog Whisperer: the show starring the glamorously named César Millán rehabilitating misbehaving dogs.

Many a Friday, Saturday, and summer evening was spent in my house watching César teach owners, literally afraid of the animals in their homes, how to modify their dog’s bad behaviour and showing them how they can nip bad habits in the bud and become the alpha in the relationship.

I grew up, largely, in a single-parent household. My parents had an incredibly messy divorce when I was nine, and after three even messier years for my younger sister and me, we became estranged from our father.

My mom had the task of being the sole parent raising two teenage daughters in a town with a drinking problem so bad we had to be breathalised before going into our school dances, and a town that had integral social problems, ones that may have contributed to it becoming the home of Stanford sex offender Brock Turner.

Getting not just one, but two kids to turn out well (not to brag) was no easy feat. To do it under these conditions, and with an out-of-control ex occasionally popping onto the scene, is something worthy of an international peace prize. And although my mom would never have said she had a strict code she adhered to that was carved in stone, she would definitely say that there were some general rules in place that guided her through our teenage years.

When we began watching The Dog Whisperer together as a family, something weird happened to all of us. Watching César Millán coach these struggling dog-owners, and seeing the methods he taught to develop healthy relationships between pet and master, we saw my mom’s rules materialising right before us – admittedly in the least predictable place we ever thought possible.

“It. Was. So. Obvious. Like, it hit me right between the eyes,” was the response I got when I asked my mom what made her realise that, believe it or not, César Millán’s rules for taming unhinged dogs were near identical to her rules for parenting. “I recognised the ‘rules’, they were ours, but he just happened to say them better.”

After mentioning I was writing this piece, I almost immediately received a link from my mom to a Google Doc that has existed for years (well beyond its “last edited July 13, 2014” note at the top). “The 12 Most Rockin’ Dog Whisperer Tenets For Parenting”, as it’s called, could effectively be the Bible for how I was brought up; in a house where there were never slammed doors or shouting, and always love and compassion even after the worst of our crimes.

When my mom sent me an email explaining her thoughts now, in 2018, about Dog Whisperer (ie. the same as they were in 2011), I figured I’d just condense her thoughts and explain why and how Dog Whisperer is, in fact, a great guide to parenting. But after rereading the tenets she finished writing years ago, I realised they’re undeniably spectacular written as they are.

So, here are my mom’s tenets for parenting as seen in Dog Whisperer, in her own words, unabridged, originally written seven years ago. I’ve also included her prelude to give you a little bit of context of why she thinks these tenets are so valuable, and to show you that she knows what she’s talking about.

“I have two teenage daughters. 17 & 15. Our household is peaceful and cheery. We’ve never had a slammed door, or an “I hate you, Mom,” or “you’re ruining my life.” Ever. There is no stomping upstairs. Or down. There is negligible back-talk. And it’s been years since either of them shot an eye-roll my way.

They’re not perfect. They occasionally get a little out of line – although that’s definitely decreased as they’ve moved through high school. They don’t get perfect grades – I just refuse to micro-manage there. The only place I do micro-manage? Character.

So I often wonder: what happens to parents whose sweet kids start in with the nightmare behaviors during the middle school years and then escalate in high school? I’m not sure what’s worse: watching a teen exhibit blood-curdling attitude toward a parent or the parent shrinking back and taking it.

It’s far too rare to see teens interacting reasonably and comfortably with their parents. Most are definitely capable of it (of course there are medical/health exceptions). So I posit, as crazy as it sounds, if more parents followed Cesar Millan’s methodology, we’d have happier, more composed teens and we’d likely be able to reverse the trends in substance use and abuse. (If you’re bugged by the dog analogy, I’m pretty sure my favorite parenting expert, John Rosemond, would be on board with these tenets, as well.)

1. Be the Pack Leader

One of the reasons you hear so many horror stories about teens is that teen instability triggers adult instability (and vice versa) and then the teens become the pack leaders of the house and mayhem rules. The adult(s) of the household must be great leaders who practice calm, assertive energy consistently with their family. Without exception.

2. Practice calm, assertive energy

Have you heard of Buck, the Horse Whisperer? Buck and Cesar continue to point out that a troubled, skittish animal generally has an adult “leader” who projects the wrong energy. Eerie how true this is for parents and their teens, too.

3. Rules, Boundaries, Limitations

Some schools of thought say with too many rules, kids will rebel. I can only report what I’ve seen in my house and my experience with other reasonable teens who are governed by reasonable parents: they blossom. I’m with Cesar – rules, boundaries, and limitations are a gift to them (although they may not appreciate it in the moment).

4. Anxiety or Instability Cannot Win

Middle school kids can be weird and mean even when there’s no bullying involved. Parents are not immune to feeling high anxiety – when your daughter’s best friend is suddenly shunning her or all the kids are mocking your son for being the shortest kid in school – that’s tough to absorb and stay upright, but you must stay upright. You are your child’s BEST example.

5. Don’t Reward Negative Energy

A writer for a major newspaper’s parenting column shared a story about catching her son texting late at night on a school night; when he emotionally lobbied for no punishment because he’s a “good kid”, the writer acquiesced, acknowledging that he is mostly a good kid. In my book, that’s a bad precedent to set. Rule at our house is: if you misbehave, there’s a consequence.

6. DO Reward Calm Energy

If my teen wants to lobby for a rule modification and brings it to us reasonably, there’s likely a 50/50 chance we will modify. But we never modify a rule, or give in, in the midst of them breaking it. Consequently, my kids have learned to approach me for any discussion with calmness and zero histrionics.

7. Practice Consistency & Patience

Example: On school nights, phones are turned in at 10pm. It probably took us a full year to get to the point that they were doing that consistently without fussing or jockeying for a rule change. But: We. Did. Not. Waver. Cesar gets great results with this tenet – parents can, too.

8. Don’t allow behavior you disagree with – Ever

You won’t hear Cesar talk about a bad dog or bad behavior. Instead he’ll say “I want him to know that I don’t agree with that behavior.” It’s quite evident when you see teens who are clear on the behaviors their parents agree with and the teens who are rudder-less.  

9. You have to psych yourself up – even when you’re tired

I’m not gonna lie, this phase is exhausting. It takes hard work and uber-vigilance from at least 7th – 10th grade. But it’s so worth it. About the time that everyone else’s kids are going off the rails, you’ll have coached your teens to be living every day with grace and composure.

10. Stop treating them like deserving, rational adults

If you ask them who they’re texting and they give you any attitude  take the phone. It’s not their phone, it’s yours. If they want to use it, they’ll figure out how they need to behave to have phone privileges. Ditto on all other privileges. They are children and not adults.

11. Timing is important – stop them at level one

As Cesar says, “It’s too late when they’re out of control.” Do not allow them to escalate. In our house, even the tiniest bit of bad attitude is not tolerated. Consequently, I only see minor disrespect a couple times a year – tops. And it gets corrected immediately.

12. Small amount of sound. Healthy energy and body language instead

I love to hear Cesar talk about sound. There is no need to do any screaming. When you’ve set good precedents (see above), you can often simply modify your stance or your expression and get the desired change in your child.

Around the time your kid hits Freshman year [secondary school], you’ll see your peers start falling like dominoes. Parents around you will shrug their shoulders, throw up their hands and say “well, what can we do? They’re teenagers. This is how they behave.” And they’ll just accept the craziness. It’s heartbreaking. This phase of raising children would be so much easier if more adults could stay strong.

I know to some of you this may appear to be a boast, and to others it may appear to be a condemnation, and still to others an effort to change the way people parent. It is none of those things, I assure you.

My message is simply to those of you who do not yet have teenagers, but truly want to raise teens to be happy, healthy, gracious, and composed:  It. Can. Be. Done. It’s challenging and exhausting and you will have few peers in your community with whom you can relate. Still, it can be done.

And it’s glorious.” 

My mom is a superb parent (again: two kids, no father, breathalisers, Brock Turner, before even mentioning that she had cancer at the end of our teen years). I have friends who will often say they refuse to have a child if she doesn’t publish a parenting book beforehand to help guide them through it. In every new place she works, she’s the go-to advisee of parents of young kids.

She was always stern but compassionate, constantly reminding us even after major fuck-ups that she loved us and that we were good kids. Like César is with the dogs he rehabilitates, we were not punished through aggression. We were taught with calm assertion and were always given unconditional love to show that bad actions did not equal bad being.

“The world would be a better place if parents of privilege knew how to do boundaries with their children,” she said to me via email. I can’t help but think César would agree. If more parents followed Dog Whisperer’s advice, giving their kids a short leash on bad behaviour but copious amounts of energy and support, we’d have far fewer bad childhoods and a lot more happy, emotionally-healthy adults.

Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.